One of the Society’s primary tasks is to comment to local authorities on planning applications. It is part of the duty of local councils to consult with community groups and neighbours on the plans proposed by developers. However developers and others can engage in pre-application discussions with planning authorities. Developers pay the planning authority for the costs involved for the planning authority in holding these discussions. Pre-application discussions are obviously sensible when it relates to straightforward issues or simple queries about the rules. However, we are concerned about extensive discussions which take place before any community consultation. In the case we are currently concerned about, the scheme seems to have been taken to a nearly final stage, behind closed doors and in secret, with little proper public consultation. We aim to make constructive and helpful comments, but cannot do so if we’re not involved in the conversation. There is a right of community consultation and the Highgate Society has had to make a reference to the Information Commissioner’s Office asking them to require Haringey to disclose those discussions that have taken place with the developers in one case.
It is a requirement under freedom of information law that, if asked, councils will disclose negotiations they have had with developers before an application is made, so there is openness in the decision-making. If councils could keep those negotiations a secret then their decisions might be compromised. And it makes it difficult for a neighbour or a community group to see what is going on so that effective observations, improvements to schemes and perhaps objections, can be made. Freedom of information encourages better decision making.
The Haringey Planning Department is currently refusing to disclose the communications they have with developers before an application is formally made. We find this worrying. The Highgate Society has therefore made a reference to the Information Commissioner’s Office asking them to require Haringey to disclose those discussions and negotiations. It may be some months before the Information Commissioner makes a ruling, but we hope that meanwhile Haringey planners will see benefits of a more open approach. We know that Westminster Council has already adopted a revised and open approach to pre-application discussions